The Palestine-Israel conflict has become a hostage to fundamentalists and ideologues of every description, to people who advocate a clash of civilizations and religions in pursuit of their own warped visions of history and mythology. These fanatics, whether Jews, Christians or Muslims, can best be called “clashists” (to rhyme with fascists.) The sad fact is that the issue of Palestine has become the latest “last refuge of scoundrels.” The rest of us, unencumbered by divine certitude about the future and open to reason and compromise, have found it harder to have a public voice and space. It is our task to reclaim both.
The outlines of historic compromise are evident to everyone, but no closer to realization than ever. The contours are, of course:
1. Palestine alongside Israel, with borders defined by UN Resolutions 242 and 338;
2. Shared Jerusalem that fulfills the political aspirations of two peoples and the three monotheistic religions;
3. A fair and lasting solution of the refugee problem that is in accordance with international legality;
4. An end to occupation and settlements;
5. Peace with the Arab world based on exchange of land for peace and open borders for all;
6. A Marshal Plan to rebuild Palestine and peace.
This vision of a lasting peace has the support of majority of people all over the world. It has received public support in one form or another of the United States, the Arab League, the “Quartet” and the majority of the Palestinian and Israeli peoples.
However, no progress has been made toward this vision because the clashist forces have had enough passion and clout to frustrate the will of the majority by playing on primal fears.
The great fear for the Palestinians is to be uprooted and end up without a state, a fear that deepens with every grinding day of occupation; the great fear for the Israelis is also to be destroyed, uprooted and to end up without a state.
The ultimate suspicion of the Palestinians is that Israel plans to steal all the land from underneath them and that it will use any means to block their historic quest for a state, in spite of their tenacious will and unending sacrifices. After all these decades of struggle for independence, the Palestinians will simply never concede defeat.
The Israelis see their security threatened by all things Palestinian, and have yielded to illusory promises of military victory through brute force by electing Ariel Sharon. This is a mirage of security achieved by an unachievable eradication of the adversary. As a massive land grab seems more within reach, it has encouraged extremists while the voices of peace grow increasingly faint and dispirited.
There is no military solution to this political conflict for either side. It is tragic that the present mix of leadership and theatrics can only lead to more death and destruction before saner voices prevail and make the inevitable historic compromise.
Israel’s F-16s, tanks, bulldozers, and the relentless confiscation of land and the building of settlements are measures that appease the Jewish “clashists,” but threaten not just Palestinian bodies but also the core of the Palestinian psyche and provide a steady stream of would-be suicide bombers.
Palestinian “clashists” use cruder forms of indiscriminate violence to create panic and fear and to exact vengeance from Israel. Their violent tactics have hardly softened Israeli attitudes. On the contrary, it has united Israelis and created a right wing shift has played into the hands of the Israeli “clashists” and Likudniks who have escalated their policy of the iron fist and land expropriation.
Not much good can be said about the decision makers for the Palestinians, the Israelis, the Arabs, or the US about this conflict in the past few decades. It is time for better decisions to be made.
Only external intervention can break this Gordian knot. For better or worse, the United States stands as the one power that can nudge the parties to bring this project to fruition. It takes courage, as well as vision, to do that. Electoral politics and other political considerations can be far outweighed by the benefits of peace signed, sealed and delivered.
The United States has yet to implement its publicly stated outline for peace, involving the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. It is hard to see how that vision could possibly be implemented without the use of external forces, employed on an interim basis, to guarantee security for both Israelis and Palestinians from each other. This can be done either by the UN or any other body sanctioned and supervised by the US.
Such a temporary measure will halt the pain and humiliation of the occupation and the daily shootings of unarmed Palestinians, as it puts an end to suicide bombings and other acts that engender fear and yet more violence. This measure will create the circumstances needed for strategic steps for a lasting peace to be undertaken. It will suck the oxygen away from all those conspiracy-minded “clashists” who depend on a protracted and insoluble conflict.
A constitutional and democratic Palestinian state, next to a secure Israel, is the ultimate weapon against the terror of zealots of all creeds.
It can be the keystone for constitutional democracies all over the region.
The US must use the awesome tools of persuasion and clout available to the only superpower in the world to create the atmospherics and mechanisms in Palestine and Israel to realize the universal vision of peace.
To fail to do so would be political malpractice. To shy away is moral cowardice.
Ziad Asali, M.D., is president of the Washington DC-based American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. This text is based on remarks he made at a recent national conference of Churches for Middle East Peace. This oped was first printed in the 24 March 2003 edition of the Daily Star (Lebanon).
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